This year’s Woman of the Year is JulieAnn Coll, a young mother from the Waterside, who has set up and runs a support group for those who have suffered the loss of a child in infancy or through miscarriage.
It was something she had thought about quietly for a long number of years after losing her little son, mark, at 22 weeks into her pregnancy.
Although supported by her family in the hours before her child died, JulieAnn found herself alone when she woke the next day. She had been put into a side room on her own, off the main ward.
She said she found the experience frightening and lonely, and it has been these feelings that prompted her to reach out to others.
Speaking after she won the WOman of the Year title JulieAnn said her next step was to produce informative and helpful literature for those facing what she had over a decade ago.
“I lost a wee boy in 2004,” she said.
“It was just a case of my waters broke and I went into premature labour and he was too small and weak to survive, so doing something like this has always been on the back burner, but life got in the way; throw in school, me going to work that sort of stuff.
“So, i have always known I wanted to do something.
“I am not the only person in my family to have a miscarriage, it has happened to other members of my family too, so we have been our own support group.
“When I had my loss in hospital I was handed a leaflet with a few numbers on it. Back then it was a bit scary, you know? What do you say whe you phone? Who are you talking to? Its all unknown. So, wehn the world of Facebook came along you could see more because it was easier to look and find out things through the world of Facebook and that’s how I came across Life After Loss and saw they were based in Northern Ireland and I thought ‘Right, OK’.”
A lot of the work that Julie-Ann does is through social media, keeping in contact with people electronically and her work with those feeling the loss of a child know she is always there, like a computer, running a support programme quietly in the background for anyone that wants to avail of it.
“It was coming up to baby Mark’s 10th anniversary and I thought ‘Why not!’, and I made contact with a view to setting up a Life After Loss support group here.”
Recalling the traumatic events surrounding her son’s death, Julie Ann paid tribute to her Minister, Rev Pat Storey, who came to the hospital to visit and to Christen the infant and conduct the funeral service afterwards.
At the time of the tragedy JulieAnn was in the Ward along with the pregnant women and remained there for a week. Sadly her con’s little life could not be saved.
“It was ok at the time, because there was still a heartbeat there was still hope, so, although they might have been preparing me for the worst, as long as I was getting scans and I was seeing a heartbeat, I was still hopeful.
“I went into labour and I remember having contactions on the Monday night at visiting hours and saying to my mum and dad that I needed them to watch my daughter, who was just three, so that my partner could come back. I remember my granny being there too and I cried and my granny went into overdrive and got a nurse and doctor and said I needed help. Within seconds I was in the labour ward and my partner arrived half way through labour and was there for when Mark was born.
“I remember they whisked Mark away from us and did what they had to do, but, because he was under 24 weeks there was not a lot they could do, but I had lots of questions for them.
“They asked me if I wanted to see him, but I did not know what to expect. I was a young person and it had never happened, so I did not know what to think or do as it had never happened to anyone close to me before.
“They brought Mark in in a wee basket, like a Moses basket, but it waws tiny,” she said, holding her hands about a foot apart.
“He was perfect from head to toe, but he was tiny. I’m not saying his organs were perfect, but outside, he was just perfect like a normal baby only tiny.”
The couple, surrounded by their parents and JulieAnn’s beloved granny, were able to be with little Mark, and they telephoned Rev Storey who came over and Christened the little child.
“The midwives kept him on the ward with them all night and I was moved back to the ward, but put into a room on my own,” she recalled.
Now with no support or family, JulieAnn drifted into a deep sleep, from which she did not rouse until well into the next day.
One of the things JulieAnn tries to help people who have suffered this kind of loss with is dealing with well-intentioned, but totally inappropriate things people say, and the Life After Loss sessions each month in The FWIN offices in The Diamond are a safe haven for people to let off steam and talk through their hurt and trauma without judgement - and without well-meaning but utterly unhelpful comments.
“There are people who come to our group whose family members might have said something not meaning to cause hurt, in the group they can let go of all of that.”
Life After Loss has a core group of people who find the sessions helpful.
JulieAnn said that now that she has achieved her first step, setting up a support group, the next stage for her, particularly having won the Woman of the Year title, was to use her year to produce helpful, informative literature to help those facing the trauma of child loss in infancy and through miscarriage.
Other winners on the night were: Kathleen Healy for her contribution to Women’s Community Development, Marilyn Zuniga for her contribution to Community Relations, Rose Green for contribution to Health; the Galliagh Women’s Group for their Contribution to Enterprise and Trish Austin for her Contribution to the Arts. The Contribution to Formal and Informal Education award went to Margaret Cunningham, while the Contribution to Older People went to Anne Bradley, the Contribution to Youth went to Sonia Blakely, Lorraine Lambert won the Contribution to Caring award, Margaret Chambers won the Contribution to Childcare award while the Young Women’s Award went to Emma McGinley.
The Mayor, Elisha McCallion, extending her thanks to everyone who took part in the awards, said it was a hugely significant occasion for the city.
“Tonight’s event is extremely significant in that it’s the first one for the new Derry City and District Council. The Women of the Year awards is a hugely successful night and a great forum to acknowledge the important role of women in our local community who are making a real difference to the lives of many.”
Joanna Boyd, Women’s Officer with Derry City and Strabane District Council, who co-ordinated the awards, said: “We had a huge level of interest in this year’s event with applications from all over the city and district. It is fantastic to see so many inspirational women in the city and district who are working tirelessly to benefit others and we are delighted to be able to acknowledge them through the annual awards ceremony.”
She also extended her thanks to Local Women Magazine for sponsoring the event.